Cows are getting a really bad press again. Dramatic rises in levels of methane gas have put ‘farting cow stories’ back in the news. Methane is a big problem in terms of climate change. It’s 84 times more potent than CO2 due to its greater ability to hold on to the sun’s heat. The gas is believed to be responsible for about 25% of the global warming crisis. So what have cows got to do with all this?

PICTURE: Michael Terry

Cows do produce methane, as do other animals including humans although we seem to have got the story a bit ‘back to front.’…It’s actually cow ‘burps’ that are the main source of the problem. There are quite a lot of cows on the planet, about one for every five humans. Human contribution (in gas production) is apparently minimal. So is it just the number of cattle or are they producing more methane than they used to? And if so why would that be? 

Cows have a very different digestive system to humans but they are still affected by what they eat. And just like us their diets have changed radically over the past decades. 

Cows left to graze in fields would forage for a variety of plants and grasses. But many now live much of their short lives in industrial feedlots where they are fattened up for the supermarket.

We don’t tend to associate industrial scale livestock farming with the UK but investigations published by the Guardian revealed that we now have about 800 ‘mega farms’ in the country housing thousands of pigs and chickens. The UK has also begun to open US style cattle feedlots where up to 3,000 animals may be held in pens where fields are replaced by mud and dung.

These vast industrial units began in the USA and really took off in the second half of the 20th century. Cramming thousands of animals together had not been possible before the introduction of antibiotics. Animals raised in this way become highly susceptible to disease. Antibiotics and other drugs have become an integral part of their lives. In the US, intensive animal farming accounts for up to 80% of antibiotic use. 

The sole purpose of the feedlot is to ensure the animals gain a lot of weight before slaughter. Their ‘fattening diet’ is generally composed of GMO corn and soy. On this far from ideal diet cattle frequently develop acidosis when grains ferment in the rumen. Does poor diet and digestive disturbance result in increased burps and methane production? 

Scientists and farmers have been experimenting, hoping to find ways of reducing methane production from cattle. Industry proposes GM grass, vaccines and GM cows. The US government even proposed taxing cow emissions. Others have tried more logical solutions like supplementing with elements missing from the animals’ industrial diets. Omega-3 fatty acids in the form of fish oils and seaweed have proved successful. Farmers in ancient Greece grazed their cattle on beaches to benefit from nutrient rich seaweed. The same practice was also used in Iceland. 

In some studies methane production was almost totally eliminated by addition to the diet of certain seaweeds.

Reading University found that adding wild flowers and plants to a grass diet also reduced methane emissions. Essential oils, plant compounds including saponins and tannins have all proved effective. 

The yoghurt manufacturer Danone found that cattle were healthier in the spring when out to grass. They tried adding a variety of omega-3 rich grasses to their year-round diets.  The cows not only produced more milk but also less methane. Milk from grass fed cows has been found to be many times richer in omega-3s.

All this research is very worthy but hardly surprising. In many ways the researchers are just replicating nature. Feeding animals on fish oils replaces omega-3s that a cow would get whilst grazing on a varied diet of grasses and wild plants. In a natural environment animals seek out what they need albeit a mineral rich puddle or a healing herb. Cows, like people, get sick in cramped and unsanitary conditions. Like people they get sick on unnatural diets. They need sunshine and fresh air. Hopefully the research will lead to animals being fed a healthier diet, rather than the genetic engineering of cows and grass.

Methane is the main component of natural gas. As such can we not make use of it? I remember back in the 1970s, staying with people in the US who ran their truck on chicken poo, I was very impressed. Wyke Farms dairy in Somerset use anaerobic digesters to turn manure into methane gas. The farm now produces enough gas to power 6,000 homes. Local small-scale energy production seems like a perfect all-round solution except it appears the government is not keen on green. 

In 2015 Amber Rudd as Environment Secretary announced drastic cuts to the subsidy paid to small energy producers feeding into the National Grid. Set up is expensive be it solar panels or methane converters. The slash in payments made going-green non-viable for most people. Just to make the message clear the government is pulling the plug on the incentive scheme for DIY green power as from April this year.

So what do they have in mind? The Tories seem excessively keen on fracking, promoted as a ‘bridge’ between coal and more sustainable energy. Earthquakes and poisoning of underground water sources appear insufficient to quell their enthusiasm. In 2016 Harvard study found that US emissions of methane rose by over 30% between 2006 and 2016; the decade which saw a boom in US fracking for shale gas. In 2018 The Environmental Defence Fund [EDF] announced plans to launch a satellite intended to identify methane leaks from fracking sites and leaking pipelines. Fred Krupp, president of EDF said “Cutting methane emissions from the oil and gas industry is the single fastest thing we can do to help put the break on climate change”. Here in the UK we are currently reaching the highest winter temperatures ever recorded. 

In the face of unprecedented environmental threats, the ‘Greenest Government Ever’ has started fracking again, ignoring tremendous opposition from the public and environmental groups. However recent events might just put a brake on the juggernaut. This month the High Court found government policy on fracking to be unlawful. Scientific evidence including impact upon climate had been ignored in decision-making. 

Meanwhile elevated levels of methane have been detected near Cuadrilla sites in Lancashire. Typical levels would be between 1,857 and 2,544 ppb. In January 2019 investigators recorded levels exceeding 10,000 parts per billion. 

See also DIY Energy Production here. 

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